Foreign tourists giving Ho Chi Minh City a miss

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Two Japanese tourists buy souvenirs from a street-peddler in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Nguyen Tran Tam

Ho Chi Minh City is losing its status as a tourism hub in the country, with many foreign visitors choosing to bypass it and fly directly to more attractive, safer spots.

Figures from the city tourism department show that there were 3.8 million foreign arrivals last year 2012, or just 56 percent of all visitors to Vietnam, down from more than 60 percent in the past.

Many hotels have been reporting poor business since last year, saying one reason for this is that visitors to other destinations in Vietnam, who earlier used to stay in the city at least on their first and last days in the country, no longer do so.

Travel industry insiders admit that visitors have probably realized that the city is not an attractive enough destination to offset its poor infrastructure and lack of security.

Robert Tan, a Singaporean working in the Vietnamese tourism industry, said Ho Chi Minh City is losing its position as the country's tourism hub when it was the arrival and departure point for almost all international flights.

Foreign tourists then used to fly into the city before traveling to other places, he said.

But Vietnam's poor traffic infrastructure plus the economic situation has made such multi-day tours unpopular and people have started to choose particular destinations, he said.

That new option has been made even more convenient with other hotspots developing their own airports, he said.

Hanoi has always been a major international destination.

There are now regular flights to Da Nang from Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Shanghai, and charter flights from Beijing, Taipei, Tokyo and Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city in population.

There are also international flights to Cam Ranh near Nha Trang.

Tan said foreign tourists who want a place to relax and sightsee do not consider Ho Chi Minh City an ideal place, yet the city has failed to make itself competitive in other kinds of tourism.

It could follow other major cities in the region like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, which have developed artificial tourism products like cheap shopping, sporting events, food-related products, and amusement centers, besides traditional cultural products, he said.

He described Ben Thanh's night market, once a magnet for foreign tourists, as a gathering of low-quality eateries and shops selling fakes or copycats, all reaching out to tourists with scary insistence.

The city has some shops selling handicrafts, but they are too small for several buses to stop at one time, while tax-free shops do not cater to a diversity of shopping interests and there is almost no entertainment at night, he said.

Phan Dinh Hue, director of the city-based Vong Tron Viet (Viet Circle) tourism company, said the city is losing out not only to other destinations in the country, but also to Laos and Cambodia.

It does have a "big advantage" as a transit point for tourists going to Cambodia, who can travel from the city by air, river, or road.

"But all are poor, especially roads. Moc Bai border gate (in neighboring Tay Ninh Province) is underdeveloped and the staff are slow with immigration and customs procedures."

La Quoc Khanh, deputy director of the city tourism department, lamented, "Tourists are abandoning [the city]."

The city should make itself indispensable at least as a shopping hotspot, making use of its resources as the country's commercial capital, he said.

"Tourists coming to Vietnam must think about going to Ho Chi Minh City for shopping."

But Tan said before the city tries to improve its services, it needs to improve safety since mugging has become a major deterrent for foreign visitors.

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